Gambling cruises are often portrayed as an opportunity for fresh air, a stroll on the upper deck, before the casino boat opens up the gaming tables, and the slots switch on.
The reality is that customers risk seasickness, bad weather, and being cramped up in close quarters for a five- or six-hour round trip.
If conditions are less than ideal, for much of the cruise a boat can roll through three-foot swells. Chips spill across tables, glasses tumble from bars. Shuffling for dealers can be tough. Some gamblers get distressed and ask for saltine crackers and cups of ginger ale. You can usually buy motion sickness tablets at the bar, $1 apiece.
To travel the three miles to reach international waters can take as long as an hour, so customers are left high and dry until the gambling begins. Before this happens, they are not sure what to do, while the floors move up and down.
Passengers pass the time nibbling on cheese and crackers, ordering drinks, and taking chip-free lessons at the tables.
Sometimes the gambling boats collide with one another, and take on water so fast that the hapless gamblers are left floating in the water until able to be rescued by emergency workers and volunteers.
Some gambling boats are allowed to remain tethered at docks. Nonetheless, U.S. Coast Guard rules require the motionless boat to be staffed round-the-clock by a captain and a full crew.
Harrah’s, the Nevada-based gambling firm that owns the Southern Star as well as its companion Joliet boat, the Northern Star, currently spends more than $2 million a year on a rotating marine staff of more than 40, including captains, engineers, apprentice engineers, safety officers and deck hands.
Some boats are permanently moored in muddy ponds. The boats have no windows, and get no more than a dice-throw away from their moorings before heading back. There’s a distinct oddity about forcing captains to guide a boat going nowhere.
Gambling boats are certainly a bizarre phenomenon. Imagine the waves are rolling, the dice are rolling, and the chips are rolling around on the tables and you’re trying to keep a cool head for gambling. But, you don’t board a casino boat, after all, if you’re looking for serenity.
Inside most of these boats, you’ll find a conservatively dressed staff, a cash bar, and the standard casino accouterments: six or seven blackjack tables, one table each of roulette, craps, and Caribbean Stud Poker, and about 80 slot machines, which stay eerily quiet until the ship reaches international waters (if it’s not the kind that stays permanently moored).
A gambling house might have a decent handle on the odds, but it can’t do much about the weather. For some, it is such a rough experience that they vow never to return. A heavy loser on the roulette table can at least, for solace, spend an alcoholic hour in the bar going home, but if the seas are rough, you’d feel doubly uncomfortable.
Others think that five hours on the ocean can be grand, especially in whale-watch territory. If you catch the right night, and the weather’s nice, many say they would even prefer the gambling boat to a land-based casino.
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